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It Was Pre-Programmed to Be an Instant Classic

The winning team had the buzz-headed kid who fought back a scream.

“With it all on the line, if you lose you are gone,” said Kansas’ Nick Collison. “I will be proud of this one for a long time.”

The losing team had the buzz-headed kid who fought back the tears.

“I’m so disappointed that this team can never play together again,” said Duke’s J.J. Redick.

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The winning team sat hunched in front of lockers long afterward, uniforms still plastered to bodies, hair still soaked in sweat.

“They hustled, we hustled, the same kind of teams, back and forth and tough,” said Kansas’ Jeff Graves.

The losing team spent all that time in the showers, cleansing itself of excuses.

“I have no regrets,” said Duke’s Dahntay Jones.

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It began with a couple of old-fashioned charging fouls. It ended with old-fashioned sportsmanship, players from two of college basketball’s greatest programs carefully lined up to shake each other’s hands as if it were Saturday morning at the YMCA.

Our good fortune, of course, was that it was Thursday night at the Pond, the West Regional semifinals, and a chance to remember college basketball as it used to be.

It was Kansas 69, Duke 65, and thank you to both.

Everything the game has lost, particularly in our own town, showed up for 40 minutes here in all its floor-burned glory.

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Two of the game’s best coaches, two of its grandest traditions, two halves that should be videotaped and shown to everyone who thinks basketball cannot survive without the words alley and oop.

The words Thursday were defense and passing, rebounding and running, working and working.

The squeaking wasn’t from the player’s mouths, but their shirts as they skidded across the floor while trying to draw fouls.

Their wild gesturing wasn’t directed toward themselves, but their teammates, as they talked and schemed and directed.

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The only time anybody here pounded his chest was when he was out of breath. The only time anyone talked to the referee was to ask for the ball.

The only time they strutted was never.

The best statistics weren’t the points or rebounds, but the combined 13 blocked shots and 10 steals and 25 assists.

And, oh yes, those five charging fouls.

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Residents of Westwood haven’t seen five charging fouls in five years.

Even Thursday night’s trash talk wasn’t about trash, but game.

“Back off!” shouted Duke’s Redick.

“I’m getting all ball!” shouted Kansas’ Kirk Hinrich.

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All ball, all the time, for 40 glorious minutes in front of thousands who gave both teams standing ovations.

Said Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski: “I’ve been to a lot of Final Fours and championship-level games, and this was a championship-level game.”

Said Kansas’ Roy Williams: “It was a sensational college basketball game. We feel very fortunate to be the one with the most points.”

You know something? Until those coaches talked in the postgame interview session, you didn’t even know they were there.

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And to think of the sideline show they could have performed.

Williams is the winningest active coach by percentage, but Krzyzewski has a better career tournament winning percentage, and that’s just the start of the rivalry.

Yet both men did little more than stand there and point and plead and orchestrate.

And afterward, Williams didn’t even gloat about beating Krzyzewski for the first time in four tries as the Kansas boss.

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“This was about our team against their team,” Williams said.

Two of the game’s best minds, and it was all about the players.

It was about Duke’s Jones, flying around at both ends while helping his team to an eight-point lead early in the second half.

“It is very hard to say goodbye to the guys in the locker room,” he said.

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It was about Kansas’ Collison, perhaps the best player in the country, leading a comeback with one of the best games in his life: 33 points, 19 rebounds and four assists.

“He just put us on his back and carried us,” Hinrich said.

And in the end, this game was about the game itself, and everything that is still right about it.

It was Williams calling time out early in the second half and shouting to his team about regrets.

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“I told them, let’s do this for today, so in May or June, we don’t have to think about what we could have done different,” he said.

It was about Duke responding with its trademark slap-the-floor defense that stunned the Jayhawks with its resolve.

“It was like, they didn’t quit, they wouldn’t quit,” said Kansas’ Aaron Miles.

Then, with seven minutes left and Kansas having taken a two-point lead, it was about the Jayhawks’ Michael Lee diving for a loose ball and ending up in press row.

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On the other end, his teammates stopped Duke despite playing four-on-five defense without him.

A minute later, Kansas’ Graves saved a ball by knocking it off a Duke player, and Collison converted the inbounds play into a layup for a six-point lead that eventually became an old-fashioned victory in every way.

How fun.

“If we lost, I wouldn’t think it was fun,” groused Hinrich.

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What a game.

“Not after we lost,” grumbled Redick.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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